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Motorcycle ride honors women's 1916 ascent of Pikes Peak

July 15, 2016 Updated: July 16, 2016 at 1:37 pm
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The Van Buren sisters on their epic cross-country 1916 motorcycle trip. Photo courtesy of American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame

The dirt road that once marked Pikes Peak Highway has been paved with asphalt, and the rudimentary motorcycles of the early 20th century have been replaced by the latest from Harley-Davidson and Honda. 

But Friday morning, as a group of about 80 motorcyclists ascended the highway in honor of the first pair of women to ride individual motorcycles up the summit 100 years ago, the century-apart trips had something in common: a sense of accomplishment and empowerment.

"It's not just women riding motorcycles," Cindy Robbins, a biker from Granby, said after dismounting her BMW F700 GS. "It's women finding out they are capable of so much more."

Pikes Peak was one excursion on the Sisters' Centennial Motorcycle Ride, a 21-day transcontinental adventure honoring the 1916 trip of Adeline and Augusta Van Buren, the first two women to ride motorcycles across the country.

On Aug. 6, 1916, the pair shared their excitement with the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph.

"We didn't really feel that we had achieved anything wonderful until yesterday," Adeline Van Buren told the paper while composing a telegram to her family in New York. "When we left Chicago, we had been farther west on motor vehicles than any women that had come before us, but we did not really become elated until we mounted Pikes Peak."

One hundred years later, riders launched their ascent up the mountain at 8 a.m. Friday at The North Pole theme park in Cascade. They endured razor-sharp switchbacks and rocketing altitudes to reach a finish line covered with mud and slush.

Southern California resident Monique Filips rode up the mountain with her two children, 8-year-old Spencer and 12-year-old Makayla, in a yellow sidecar marked with a bumper sticker that reads: "I will never drive a minivan."

"It was beautiful," said Filips, who has carted Spencer and Makayla with her Honda Shadow motorcycle since she joined the cross-country trip in Springfield, Mass. "The views were spectacular."

Sisters' Centennial riders arrived in Colorado Springs Thursday night for a three-day stop. The flock of motorcyclists includes dozens of female riders, ages 18 to 72, who have been traveling an average of 225 miles a day since the trip began July 3 in Brooklyn.

"For a lot of these women, this may be the one and only time they ride a motorcycle across the United States," said ride organizer Alisa Clickenger, a veteran motorcyclist. "It is about the riding, but it's also about exploring and the two-wheeled experience."

Dan Ruderman, Adeline's great-grandson, and his children, Sofié and Skylar, were among riders who arrived at Colorado Springs Hotel Eleganté Thursday night after traveling about 300 miles from McCook, Neb.

"It makes you realize just how remarkable what they (the Van Buren sisters) did was," Sofié Ruderman said. "This trip is going to have its ups and downs with the riding itself, but to have done it a hundred years ago with the bikes they had and the gear that they had would have been so much more difficult than it is for us today."

The Van Buren sisters' trip spanned two months, from July to early September 1916. They rode from New York to San Francisco, traveling across the center of the country mostly via the Lincoln Highway and staying overnight at hotels.

The sisters intended to prove to the Army that women were capable of serving as war-front dispatch riders, which had transitioned a year earlier from men on horseback to men on motorcycles. They also wanted to encourage others to prepare for America's involvement in World War I.

Weather and terrain were their biggest challenges, said William Murphy, who recreated the sisters' trip while writing "Grace and Grit," a book about the Van Buren sisters and several other motorcyclist heroines of the era.

"For hundreds of mile stretches, there were no roads," Murphy said in a phone interview. "They were driving down farm lanes on covered wagon trails. When it rained, it turned to unimaginable mud."

Bikes of the era had little in common with today's models, said Jim Weir, curator of the Rocky Mountain Motorcycle Museum at the Pikes Peak Harley-Davidson dealership. Early 20th-century motorcycles had no suspension, no shock absorbers and poor fuel capacity. They were started manually with pedals. And while modern bikes have 80 to 100 horsepower, Adeline and Augusta's motorcycles would have had 7 to 10, Weir said.

"Basically the bikes of that era were bicycles with motors stuffed in them," he said. "These women were very intrepid and way, way ahead of their time."

Decked out in thick leather gear, the Van Buren sisters each rode 1916 Indian PowerPlus motorcycles with V-twin engines. The museum has a similar model - the oldest bike in its collection, Weir said. The seat is so high that the sisters, each under 5-foot-6, likely wouldn't have been able to touch the ground. The antique motorcycle's chipped paint, exposed rusty motor and worn leather seat are a stark contrast to the set of shiny new bikes the Rudermans were provided for the trip by BMW, one of the ride's sponsors.

Dan Ruderman got his motorcycle license in 2014, only two years before the centennial ride, which he has planned for years.

Adeline died before he was born, but he grew up flipping through a scrapbook she left of black-and-white photos and hearing tales from the sisters' transcontinental trip: how they nearly died after getting lost in the Utah desert, how they were arrested multiple times for wearing men's clothing, how they only traveled 3 miles one day in Grand Junction after a terrible storm wrecked the Midland Trail.

"We've always wanted to do it because of the stories I grew up with, because it was a way to show respect for what she had done, because it would be an epic thing to do," Dan Ruderman said. "I never got to meet her, but I get to honor her in a really special way."

Correction: This article was edited to delete an erroneous number.

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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